MSHA rescue order underwent 19 changes
By Mike Gorrell
The Salt Lake Tribune
September 12, 2007
When federal mining regulators first took charge Aug. 6 at the Crandall Canyon mine, the disaster that ultimately took nine lives and wounded six other miners was characterized as "a noninjury accident."
The time was 4:41 a.m., less than two hours after the mine's walls imploded in a collapse that University of Utah seismographs measured at magnitude 3.9.
At that point, a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) official issued a 103(k) order, named after the provision in federal law that authorizes the agency to enter a mine where an accident threatens the safety of miners and to establish a semblance of order.
From that point on, the 103(k) order prohibited "all activity at the Crandall Canyon Mine until MSHA has determined it is safe" and required the mine co-owner and operator, Murray Energy Corp. and its UtahAmerican Energy Inc. subsidiary, to secure prior MSHA approval for all rescue operation plans.
During the next three weeks of the ill-fated rescue effort, there were 19 modifications of the order, which was made public Tuesday. It was posted on MSHA's Web site after Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the document were filed by Mine Safety and Health News, a trade publication that tracks MSHA activities, and The Salt Lake Tribune.
"The 'k' order is important because MSHA has to approve anything that [mine co-owner Robert] Murray did in relation to that rescue," said longtime Mine Safety and Health News owner and managing editor Ellen Smith.
She was incensed to see Murray leading news media into the mine, knowing that 103(k) orders rightly restrict underground access to "necessary persons" and that engineers she had interviewed described the Crandall Canyon situation as exceedingly dangerous.
"I wanted to find out who approved the press going in there," she said. "It's important to hold people accountable or to see where accountability lies."
The 103(k) order itself does not shed much light on who authorized Murray to take a group of reporters and photographers into the mine on Aug. 8, two days into the rescue effort.
There was a modification approved at 1:50 p.m. on Aug. 7 that permitted the [mine] operator "to use a camera underground," limiting that use to "photographs depicting underground conditions for the purpose of informing family members and/or members of the media of the current underground conditions in the mine and the equipment used in the recovery efforts."
While no mention was made of media participation in an underground tour, an MSHA spokesman sent Smith an e-mailÂ Tuesday that said "MSHA ensured that the [media] crew had appropriate safety training and were accompanied by an MSHA inspector."
The rescue plans submitted by Murray Energy and order modifications approved by MSHA make no mention of the missing miners or possible causes of the disaster.
But the language and restrictions in multiple entries clearly indicate that officials were aware of the highly volatile environment in which rescuers were working.
As crews clawed their way back through a rubble-filled tunnel toward the area where the trapped miners were last known to be working, numerous protective measures were ordered.
"We have to take every precaution possible," said an Aug. 11 amendment signed by MSHA district manager Allyn Davis and company general manager Laine Adair.
All of those precautions, however, were unable to prevent the tunnel walls from imploding on the rescuers at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 16. Five hours later, MSHA modified the order to prohibit anyone from going within almost a half-mile of where the blowout occurred.